Qatar crisis casts shadow on GCC future
London - The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) appears to be passing through its most difficult moment with the dispute between three of its members and Qatar reaching a climax at the Arab body’s annual summit.
The summit of the GCC, which includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, was cut to just a few hours instead of the planned two-day event.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, backed by Egypt, in June accused Qatar of supporting terrorism, a charge that Doha denies. Convened December 5 — exactly six months since the dispute began — the summit was attended by only two heads of state: Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al- Sabah, who was hosting the event, and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
Also attending were Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, Bahraini Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Mubarak and Omani Deputy Prime Minister Sayyid Fahd bin Mahmoud.
“The leaders’ absence was an apparent snub to [the] Qatari ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and to Kuwait’s efforts to mediate an end to the Saudi-led boycott of the gas-rich nation,” wrote Zainab Fattah and Fiona MacDonald for Bloomberg News.
The absence of the sultan of Oman from the meeting was due to his ill health but Muscat appears keen on avoiding being involved in the dispute, which has divided the GCC.
Oman had resisted Saudi pressure to reduce ties with Tehran and Qatar, which has been accused by the four boycotting countries of being too cosy with Iran.
Another source of contention is the Qatari Al Jazeera satellite channel, which the Arab quartet accuse of airing extremist views, a charge denied by the broadcaster as well as Doha.
“Al Jazeera, which the quartet demanded be shut down, openly reporting from the summit and one of its journalists spoke live to Kuwaiti state radio,” tweeted Gerd Nonneman, former dean of Georgetown University Qatar.
During the summit, Sheikh Sabah called for the amendment of the GCC charter to facilitate resolving disputes between members. He also vowed to continue Kuwait’s mediation efforts.
“We have been stormed in the past six months with painful and negative developments… but we managed to achieve calm,” Sheikh Sabah said. “Our meeting today is a reason to continue the mediation which fulfils the ambitions of our people.”
It appears unlikely that the GCC rift would soon be mended. A few hours before the commencing of the summit, the UAE announced it was forming a military and economic committee with Saudi Arabia outside the GCC.
UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan said in the resolution the committee should “co-ordinate between the two countries in all military, political, economic, trade and cultural fields.”
The protocol to establish the coordinating committee was signed in May 2016 by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
“The formal resolution issued today forming a joint cooperation committee between the UAE and Saudi Arabia is no surprise,” Marcelle Wahba, the president of the Washington-based Arab Gulf States Institute, told the Abu Dhabi-based the National.
The alliance signals the formation of a shared regional outlook by Saudi Arabia and the UAE — along with Bahrain — that is not shared by the other three GCC members.
The move “threatens to further weaken the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab world’s only functioning trade bloc,” wrote Simeon Kerr in the Financial Times.
Other analysts saw the new Saudi-UAE alliance as a positive development.
“New dynamics in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UAE could make hoped for changes in the Middle East more possible and consequential than before,” Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, wrote in the National. “Such dynamics include near uniformity in the way they pursue change, contrary to before when Saudi Arabia, for example, tended to be more cautious and less agile.”
Although the GCC, which was established in 1981, is unlikely to be dismantled soon, its relevance has diminished. Despite pressure from Kuwait, the GCC summit did not even address the Qatar crisis.
The fact that the summit occurred, however, was touted as a success.
“The symbolic presence yesterday was a clear message that the summit is the only joint political action between the boycotting countries and Qatar and may not happen again,” wrote Abdulrahman al- Rashed, the former editor-in-chief of Asharq al-Awsat, in an opinion piece in the newspaper.
“The summit survived despite the boycotting of all ties with Qatar and the GCC avoided a total collapse,” he added. “The Kuwait summit ended quickly, and Sheikh Sabah succeeded in rescuing the GCC from collapsing.”